Saturday, December 29, 2007

Think Spring -- Hope Chronicles 6

In 1989 I finished up my sophomore year of college. It was reasonably warm in southern Indiana. The first or second week in May, I headed north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's Cedar Campus. We were suppose to arrive, on Saturday. But for a reason that escapes me, my sister and friend and I couldn't leave until Saturday evening. We drove 16 hours through the night and got there just in time for worship Sunday morning. We were tired and a little ragged from the trip.

As we were driving we had to turn the heat on. On the other side of the 5 mile Mackinac Bridge, we were greeted with the sign, "Think Spring." Though it was warm where we came from, it was still a bit chilly in the UP.

Flash forward. It's Dec. 29th in central Illinois. It's cold and grey out. All the Christmas festivities are done. People are coming out of their turkey comas to discover that life on the the other side of Christmas isn't much different than life before Christmas -- with the exception of the amount of debt they are carrying. That, of course, has grown. If they had to go to work this week, the week seemed to drag on and on and on even though if was a "short" work week.

I've found myself feeling a little glum. From the way people around me have been acting, I think they have felt that way as well. So, what do these two stories have to do with each other. More than you might think!

Let's start with the present day. It might be easy to drift off into hopelessness. We are in for 3-4 more months of cold and gray skies. There aren't really any major holidays to break up the monotony. (Okay, there are things like Lincoln's Birthday and Martin Luther King Day -- but it really depends on where you work if you get to have those things off. And then there is Valentine's Day -- the ultimate Hallmark Holiday. But enjoying that one depends on if you are with someone or not. So, my point stands. There aren't any major holidays for everyone coming up soon.)

Even though it was May that year of the all night trek to camp, spring was slow in coming to the UP. And if I recall it correctly, it was gray.

But I like the outlook of those "uppers." They knew that spring was coming and they were focused on it. It's amazing that the image of that sign has stuck with me for so many years. I think of it now as an image of hope.

So, what are you focused on just past Christmas? Has the reason for the season been abandoned? Are you dismayed, as I often am, by how far you have yet to go in your spiritual life?

As Christians Paul tells us that the "hope of glory" resides in us. He writes in Colossians 1:21-27:

"Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel . . . . Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. "

Christ in you - the hope of glory. How amazing is that? It is not yet fully manifested, but it is there deep inside you and me. Like bulbs planted in the fall that will not blossom until spring, so is God's hope in you. It is there. You have it already. It just may not be in full bloom yet. But it will be. Do not worry about that. When you are dismayed by how far you have to go or how long you have to wait, Think Spring. Think Jesus. That is where our hope lies.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Expectations -- Hope Chronicles 5

Recently, I overheard this conversation between two men. The first announced happily that he had received a $300 bonus from his company. The second man was less enthusiastic. He said, "Well, you want to know what I got? A $25 gift card. Enjoy yours . . . ." Actually, he pretty much slammed whomever gave him that gift card.

There is a big discrepancy in the amount of money received. I will grant that. However, I wonder about the circumstances around the gifts. Does one work for a small company and another a large one? Were the gifts from the company or the individual bosses? What were the thoughts behind the gifts?

I was actually a little taken aback. There was so little gratitude for the gift given to the second man. Clearly he expected more or thought he deserved more.

I like to give gifts but I hope the price tag attached isn't what the people see. I hope they see the heart behind it. I hope I receive gifts being grateful for what has been given rather than looking at what I would rather have had or comparing it to what someone else received.

This week I've been reflecting on the three Wise Men (also known as Magi or Kings) that followed a star from far off lands to see the King of the Jews. In Mathew, they initially stop at King Herod's palace to ask where they can find this new king. It seems realistic that since the star was announcing the the birth of a king that they would find him in a palace. Herod doesn't know of this new king but is suspicious and asks them to find him and return and tell him where to find the new king. But God warns them of returning to Herod.

Tradition often indicates that the Magi show up the night of Jesus birth. But in Mathew, it indicates that they found Jesus in a house rather than a manager. Either way, manager or house, it was probably an infinitely more humble dwelling than they might have expected for a king! They seemed to initially think that they would find him at the palace.

My take on this is that they didn't find quite what they expected. They could have turned away, convincing themselves that this was somehow a mistake -- this isn't where you find kings. However, this did not deter them from worshipping Jesus. They were willing to have their expectations adjusted. As a result, they didn't miss out on a unique opportunity.

Which are you like? The Magi or the second man in the story above. When things don't look as you had hoped or anticipated do you reject what is offered or take it gratefully?

I would like to be like the Magi, but I think that I am often like the second man. Maybe not so much with gifts but more with my circumstances. Things look nothing like I dreamt of as a child or even what I dreamt of a year ago. I need to be reminded that my hope is in a living God who know what is best for me. He gives good gifts to his children -- even when I don't always understand them.

My prayer is that I would be able to fix my eyes on that hope and the good things He has given.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Answer -- A Story of Hope

Hi to anyone who stopped over regarding my question on Lysa's blog -- (If you didn't come from there you should stop in. It is really interesting and fun.) I asked the question in the comment section: Which country occupied by Germany during WWII save the majority of it's Jewish population (about 90%)?

The answer is Denmark! We don't hear about that all that much, but it is a great story. They were occupied and the Danish government learned about the impending roundup of it's Jewish citizens about 3 weeks before it was scheduled. They placed smuggled them out in false bottoms in fishing boats and saved about 3,000 lives. I think that is amazing!

I also think it a story of faith and hope. Denmark was an occupied nation and those involved risked much to smuggle their friends and neighbors and strangers to safety. They put faith into action. I also think they put hope into action. Without hope of success, they would have ignored the problem and many innocent lives would have been lost.

Hope -- it is reaching and reaching and reaching. It is action in the midst of adversity and going against the odds because we know the One who holds us in the palm of his hand.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Choose Hope -- Hope Chronicles 4

My chosen profession is counseling. I am currently starting a private practice after having worked in the field for 5 years. It's a challenging profession because you are often dealing with people's misery. Happy people (unless they are at the end of counseling or maybe in it for mental maintenance) rarely see a counselor. One thing that has struck me is that misery is often the result of seeing life as out of control. Life "happens" to the person rather than them having any control over it.

To be sure, there are things in life that do "happen" to us: death, sickness, an accident, etc. But we often have a choice as to how we will respond to these things. That choice often makes all the difference.

The actor Christopher Reeve once said, "Once you choose hope, anything's possible." Well known for his roles as Super Man, Christopher Reeve later took a fall from a horse and became a paraplegic. So, how can one who was confined to a wheelchair and unable to do the most basic of things, have hope? I believe that it is that he chose hope.

Choosing hope is not an easy thing. It takes determination and a mindset that pushes back the darkness. I struggle to make the choice to choose hope. But knowing that it is a choice, I believe, is the first step. For when we do not think we have a choice in things, we sink into misery. Sometimes the evidence of the choice to chose hope are in the small things for me: putting on a smile, biting back the harsh word, even getting out of bed on the days that depression sinks its teeth into me. They are all choices that make everything else possible.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hope Skates -- Hope Chronicles 3

Yesterday, I turned 39. I had a very busy birthday. My friend, Jill, took me to lunch. She knows that I am concentrating on hope, so she made me a lovely bookmark with the word hope attached to it. And it was good just to talk about it some with her. It struck me later that I said, “I’m working on it . . . .” Yes, hope is something that can be worked on. It’s making a determination to change your mindset. That takes a lot of work.

While yesterday was a very good day, today I was reminded of how far I have to go in the hope, grace, and faith departments. I knew it was snowing last night. So, when I woke up this morning, I knew I would have to shovel my way out. Before getting ready for church, I pulled on some jeans and boots and headed outside. I was dismayed by the amount of snow we had gotten. Actually, the way my drive is situated, a lot of snow blows into my drive way in huge drifts. Not only was it a lot of snow, it was heavy.

Shoveling made me think about Bill, a friend who died last spring. He spent last winter shoveling my drive for me. As a result, I turned a bit melancholy.

Then I went in to shower and change and realized that there were problems with the toilet. After 15 minutes, things got fixed, but I was even more miserable.

I arrived at church being glad that it was an “off” Sunday for me. I run power point for the service 1-2 times a month. I was looking forward to just receiving and not worrying about cues and flow and all of that. But, there was a monkey wrench in things and I ended up needing to put the slides together in under 10 minutes and run the show. I confess that my heart was not in a good place. I cried through a few of the songs, staring resolutely at the screen and hoping the sound person wouldn’t notice.

I had a choice. I think I made the wrong one today. I let the situations get the best of me. Instead of fixing my eyes on Jesus, I looked at my circumstances. I missed out on an opportunity to serve with a grateful heart. I missed out on counting my blessings when my thoughts turned melancholy with the snow.

Hope is active. It is often a choice.

The other part of my birthday I spent with some children I really enjoy. Six of them I know well: Kolya (13), Austin (11), Alex (10), Addie (7), Elena (7), and Grace (5). I do things with them on a regular basis – but usually in sets of 2! Last year, I took Kolya, Austin, and Alex ice-skating. They loved it. I’m a horrible skater, but I enjoyed how much they liked it. My friend, Allison, went along. (She is Grace and Elena’s mom.) I figured the price out and for the group discount we needed 10 and it would mean 2 more could go for $2.00 more than what we would pay for 8. So, I called up Erica (9) and James (7) to see if they wanted to come. I didn’t think they had probably ever been, so I thought it would be a treat.

It was. Everyone seemed like they had a good time. But it struck me after church today, how hope skates. I think hope skates like James and Addie. It was the first time for both of them. They were fearless. When they fell, they got right back up and shot off again. No holding onto the wall for them!

It’s not that we should never be cautious. It’s just that sometimes our caution keeps us stuck by the wall rather than whizzing around the rink. Hope takes risks because in the end it trusts that things will be okay. It says, “I may fall, but I can get back up.” It says, “I know the ONE who will always give me a hand up.”

There is a certain abandon about hope. Hope skates without the wall.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Hope Dwells With Us -- Hope Chronicles 2

This past year was a rough one. A year ago last fall, I fell off a horse and broke my tailbone. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt something so painful! I couldn’t walk or sit comfortably. I couldn’t bend without aggravating it. I resorted to a donut pillow to make it through work.

At the end of March I was playing Hide-and-Seek with my 5-year-old niece. As I stealthily tip toed up the stairs, I missed a step and fell all the way down the stairs. I sprained my ankle, my knee, and fractured a couple of fingers. I suppose I should have been grateful that it wasn’t my dominant hand, but do you know how many things require two hands to do them? I made huge messes in the kitchen and because of my ankle and knee they were painful to clean up.

Within a month, a dear friend had died and I was an emotional wreck. I ended up with major stomach problems. I couldn’t keep anything down for 8 days and had to go to the ER to get fluids.

I mention all of these times because they are times when I felt helpless to do even the most basic thing. And with that helplessness came a sense of hopelessness. What was the use of trying?

Recently, I was watching a TV show. They referenced Dante’s Inferno. In the story, Dante visits the eight circles of hell. The quote they referenced was a quote on entering hell, “Abandon hope all who enter here.”

Abandon hope. Most of probably don’t like the sound of that. I don’t know that Dante’s description of hell is accurate, but in this one thing, I think it is probably right. Hell, it would stand to reason, would be a hopeless place.

I admit that there are times that I’ve abandoned hope. I tell myself that things won’t get better. I say that I could pray but God wouldn’t hear me. I tell myself all the things that are wrong with me. My thinking often does me few favors in times like those.

Luckily with prayer, counsel, and sometimes medication, I’ve come out of those dark places of the soul.

But really what brought me out of those places was that even though I may have abandoned hope at times, hope –the HOPE – has never abandoned me. In fact, that HOPE – Jesus – came from heaven to earth and then to the cross so that I would never have to truly be without hope.

Matthew 1:22-23 says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet. ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means ‘God with us.’”

Immanuel. God with us. I remember learning once that the more literal translation means something along the lines of “He will pitch his tent among us.” In other words, he wasn’t just passing through. When God came to his people, he dwelt among them, lived among them.

And His presence remains with us to this day. Immanuel. God with us.

We may abandon hope, but HOPE never abandons us. HOPE goes to the ends of the earth so that we know we need never be without hope. Immanuel. God with us.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Hope in a Time of Silence -- Hope Chronicles 1

Can you imagine it? The nation of Israel was use to regular contact with God – even if they didn’t always like what they heard. But then the prophet Malachi spoke. He spoke judgment on the people and their leaders. Through Malachi, God declared that Israel was profaning His name. Malachi 1:10 says:

"Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you," says the LORD Almighty, "and I will accept no offering from your hands. 11 My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations," says the LORD Almighty.

God calls them out for bringing injured, crippled, or diseased animals. He calls out the priests whose teaching, rather than building up the people, has caused them to stumble. He calls out the nation of Israel for marrying the daughter of a foreign God.

But then comes a promise that Israel has heard before in Malachi 3:1. "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. And in Malachi 4:1-3 1 "Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty. "Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. 3 Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things," says the LORD Almighty.
It is what they have been longing for years and years and years. It is promised again. How their hearts must have leapt!

But then another warning at the very end of Malachi: 1 "Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty. "Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. 3 Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things," says the LORD Almighty.

And then, probably the most terrifying thing that had ever happened, happened to Israel. God was silent to the nation for 400 years.

So, what happened over those 400 years? Scripture is silent there. But my guess is that the remnant that God speaks of elsewhere in Malachi was faithful. They kept the stories alive. The people must wait for the Messiah. They must remain faithful even in the time of silence. They had to hold on to hope.
  • What is hope? I looked it up on Wikipedia. This is some of what I found. I’ve included the parts that I think are applicable to Biblical hope:
  • Hope implies perseverance. Hope is holding on when you cannot see the outcome. For some of us, that holding on is like being in a tug of war. We strain against that which would pull us down. For others of us, we are holding onto a life line – maybe the side of a cliff and struggling to wait for our rescuer. (We’ve probably all been there at times in our lives.)
  • “Hope is often the result of faith in that while hope is an emotion, faith carries a divinely inspired and informed form of positive belief. Hope is typically contrasted with despair, but despair may also refer to a crisis of faith . . . . hope caries a connotation of being aware of a spiritual truth.”

Today, at church, Mark Savage spoke about Mary being a person of faith. He sees this in her response to the angel telling her that she will bear the Son of God. Hers is one of immediately submitting to God’s will. There is not questioning, no “How can this be?” or “What will people think?” And she would have had a legitimate worry as to what people might think! If she was believed to be an adulteresses (and she might have been seen this way because being betrothed was being married without the physical relationship), she could be stoned. Honestly, I think that would have worried me. But Mary completely and immediately submits to something she cannot have fully comprehended.

It is faith, but it is also hope. It is hope because it shows that even though God had been silent for 400 years, Mary still chose to believe that God would fulfill his promise. She was part of Israel, hanging on to the edge of the cliff waiting for a rescuer, a redeemer. Faith and hope is what kept Israel believing the Messiah would come. Faith and hope is what made Mary answer the way she did: "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said."

May we all have the faith and hope of Mary at the this holiday season.

Hope Chronicles

I've decided to take an adventure in hope this year. Actually, it will be a year and some change! My goal is to reflect on hope through the week and write about those reflections once a week. If you have stories or reflections about hope, please let me know and I will consider including them. Actually, I'd love to know what you think about hope! My hope is that it will be a pleasing fragrance to God and uplifting to you and me.